The unsuspected culprit! Just before 14:30 on April 26, 2017, sixteen year old Davis Allen Cripe, collapsed during class at his high school in South Carolina, USA. At 15:40 he was pronounced dead. According to the coroner, Davis died of a caffeine-induced cardiac event. In the two-hour period before he collapsed, Davis had consumed three caffeine-laced drinks. Davis was a healthy young man and no heart or underlying health conditions were found that would have been triggered by the caffeine. No other drugs or alcohol were found in his system either. Davis didn’t use drugs or alcohol and spoke out against them to his friends. On the other hand, Davis did use a common substance, that is legal to purchase most anywhere and yet it took his life (1).
This story raises many questions, but most importantly, Is caffeine really as harmful as this story seems to indicate? While we don’t know all the questions, we do know a good deal about caffeine. Caffeine is one of the world’s most consumed stimulant drugs (2) and as with all drugs, there are side effects. A large portion of caffeine users exhibit dependence-like behaviours (3). Even just one cup of coffee per day can create dependency and cause withdrawal symptoms (4). In larger quantities, caffeine can cause nausea, heart palpitations, muscle tremors, and sleeping problems. Or as in the case of Davis, when too much is taken in too short a time, it can cause death.
For the more moderate users, caffeine causes metabolic mayhem by injecting stress hormones into the system. It manipulates dopamine for a quick lift, but it also can cause an increased risk for depressed mood and mental “fog” later on. Caffeine increases cortisol, a stress hormone, which at persistent high levels impairs a key memory and stress-regulating center in the brain, the hippocampus (5) (6).
To achieve chemical changes in the brain due to caffeine, it only takes one cup of coffee a day. And this actually reduces the blood flow to the brain by as much as 40%. However, over time, with continued use, the brain grows accustom to this and there comes the change in chemistry (7).
Then we come back to the story of Davis Allen Cripe. Was this just an unusual incident or is there more to caffeine than we have previously realized? At this point, that is not clear, but perhaps we should look at caffeine more as a medicine or drug instead of as a social drink.
Balanced Living: The Buzz on Beverages. LifestyleMatters.com
1.Lynch, J. and Goldschmidt, D. (2017) Teen dies from too much caffeine, coroner says. CNN News. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/15/health/teen-death-caffeine/index.html
2. Livsmedelverket (2016) Koffein. Retrieved from: https://www.livsmedelsverket.se/livsmedel-och-innehall/oonskade-amnen/vaxtgifter/koffein
3. Psychopharm 2004 Oct:176(1)c1-29.
5. Clinical and biomedical manifestations of depression. Relation to the neurobiology of stress (2). Gold, P. W., et al. N Engl J Med 1988 Nov:319(7)413-20.
6. Why stress is bad for your brain. Sapolsky, R. M. Science 1996 Aug:273(5276)749-50.
7. ABC News (2017) Caffeine’s Effects on the Human Brain. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/caffeines-effects-human-brain-interacts-blood-flow-lisa-stark-health-16141081